Long read: Ronaldinho – How the godfather of flair changed football forever
Success in Spain
Xavi credited that result as the start of what he called ‘the Barcelona rise’, the result that gave them the belief to become the best in the world
As it turned out, Barcelona won 15 of their final 20 league games to rocket up the table, coming second to Valencia. Frank Rijkaard, appointed as boss shortly before Ronaldinho’s arrival, was starting to make his mark at the club.
“It was wonderful to work alongside him,” Ronaldinho says of the Dutchman. “He is the coach that I served the longest, the best coach that I had. I could spend an entire day saying good things about him. Not only was he a great player, but he also understood what makes players tick. He made it a real pleasure for us to play for him. I was happy to go to training. We wanted to train for him, to play for him, to be with our team-mates. He made everything special.”
Barcelona had been 18 points behind Real Madrid at the halfway stage of that debut campaign, having finished behind their arch-rivals in each of the three previous seasons. They were still seven points behind them with five games to go when they travelled to the Bernabeu in late April 2004, a place where they hadn't won for seven years.
The Galacticos’ dominance appeared to be continuing when Santi Solari put Real Madrid ahead. But Patrick Kluivert quickly equalised and then with four minutes to go, Ronaldinho collected the ball 30 yards out – looking up, he spotted Xavi’s run into the penalty area and picked him out with the most sumptuous of scooped passes. “What a pass it was,” Xavi told FFT last year – the Spaniard did the rest, and Barcelona triumphed 2-1.
“It just happened, it was all so very quick,” Ronaldinho says of his famous assist. “It was an unusual attack because Xavi was up front. We even waited for the linesman because we didn’t know whether he was offside or not. But there was a very big change after that game. When we arrived back at the airport, you would have thought we had won the title – there were just so many people there at the airport. Nobody expected that.”
Xavi credited that result as the start of what he called ‘the Barcelona rise’, the result that gave them the belief to become the best in the world. By winning at the Bernabeu that night and then finishing above Madrid, the balance of power had shifted.
When Valencia soon departed the scene, fading very quickly following Rafael Benitez’s departure for Liverpool, it left Barcelona and Real Madrid to battle it out. Now it was Barça who were dominant over their rivals, and it resulted in two consecutive league crowns.
The story suggested that Ronnie had called Iniesta earlier on the day of the game to explain that he’d agreed to join Real Madrid for a massive pay rise
Ronaldinho – a player who Real Madrid decided against buying during his PSG days, reportedly because one of the club’s hierarchy said he was “so ugly he’d sink you as a brand” – was playing such a pivotal role that he was named FIFA World Player of the Year in both 2004 and 2005. A month before clinching the second of those prizes came his finest Clasico moment, usurping even his brilliant 2004 assist – and by some distance.
Sergio Ramos probably still has nightmares about it. The young defender was playing in his first Clasico when Ronaldinho ran from inside his own half of the Bernabeu pitch, dancing past Ramos and stepping inside Ivan Helguera to score a wondrous goal.
Seventeen minutes later Ronaldinho went on another run, skipping past Ramos again before finding the net once more. “Virtually unstoppable,” is how the Madrid hero has since described Ronaldinho, and even that seemed an understatement – on that night at least, Ronnie was completely unstoppable. Barcelona won 3-0, and Ronaldinho received a standing ovation from the fans.
RONNIE'S FAN CLUB
- Deco (2015): “Sometimes he did things that I never saw anyone else do. When we’d be winning the game, we’d start to enjoy ourselves and he would bring it all out.”
- Paolo Di Canio (2006): The footballers that represent me today are people like Ronaldinho, because even though I don’t know him very well, he is authentic, he smiles on and off the pitch.”
“I value that a lot more now than I did back then,” he says, when asked what the applause of the Bernabeu meant to him. “At the time I didn't give it much importance because I had to think of the following game. But now... very few players get such an honour there. Today, I am three times happier when I remember that. Many of my friends send me videos of those goals. They know that I don’t look for my goals online – I only look for the videos of the nutmegs I did!”
There’s a story that has been doing the rounds recently about that match. It was a story that’s been attributed to Andres Iniesta’s autobiography, suggesting that Ronnie had called the midfielder earlier on the day of the game to explain that he’d agreed to join Real Madrid at the end of that season for a massive pay rise. Supposedly Ronnie had made a late-night phone call to each of his team-mates with this news, asking them not to divulge it to anyone.
So the story goes, before kick-off at the Bernabeu, Ronaldinho revealed it had all been a joke but told his team-mates that the fact none of them had betrayed his secret proved their bond as a group, and proved they were ready to win.
“I don’t remember that,” Ronnie says, and indeed the writer who produced the English translation of Iniesta’s autobiography had previously confirmed that, sadly, no such story was in the book. The tale wasn’t true. “But it is true that I was always a prankster,” Ronaldinho adds.
“I would often do things to motivate my team-mates in the dressing room, especially against Real Madrid. I had to, because that’s a game that put on the pitch all of the best players in the world, and many of the best in history. I remember one goal I scored from a free-kick – in their wall they had Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham… Playing in the Clasico, you needed a bit of stress relief.”
FFT is curious for details of these pranks, but Ronnie is keeping schtum. “I’ve seen and been in a lot of pranks, but what happens in Rome stays in Rome!” he cackles.
"We never doubted we'd beat Arsenal"
Sol Campbell headed the north Londoners into a half-time lead but Eto’o levelled with 14 minutes to go, then right-back Juliano Belletti emerged as the unlikely hero
It was in Paris, not Rome, that Ronaldinho helped Barcelona to win the Champions League in 2006, only the second time that the Blaugrana had been crowned European champions in their history.
“We just couldn’t stop winning that season, it was addictive,” he says. “Each year after I arrived, we brought new good players. As Barcelona got stronger financially, the team flowed better. Everyone was in a great moment at the same time, it was just so easy. Deco only gave me good passes, Samuel Eto’o knew what he had to do every time. No one ever wanted difficult solutions. In that campaign we were driven. We thought we could beat anyone.”
Back in the city where he had spent two years with PSG, Barcelona didn’t have it all their own way in the final against Arsenal, even after Jens Lehmann’s early dismissal. Sol Campbell headed the north Londoners into a half-time lead but Eto’o levelled with 14 minutes to go, then right-back Juliano Belletti emerged as the unlikely hero.
“We never doubted we would win that match,” Ronaldinho insists. “Even when we were losing, we knew they were one man down and that it would cost them. We just figured that we didn’t need to rush, we just had to play our football. It could have been more than 2-1 – we kept it at that score so that Belletti could say he scored the decider! That was his only goal for Barcelona.
“We had a massive party in Paris after the game. I had many friends there so I went to celebrate with them, and some team-mates came along. Everyone brought their families, so some were celebrating with them after our party, too. It was a great night.”
Lionel Messi had missed that final through injury, but his reputation was already on the rise. Ronaldinho was his inspiration.
“He’s a phenomenon,” an 18-year-old Messi told FFT back in 2005. “Ronaldinho gives me a lot of advice and praises me permanently. He’s got an ability to control the ball which makes me jealous. At any moment during a game he can do something special to win it – and that’s what I must aim to do.”
Messi soon learned to do just that, and with a little bit of help from Ronnie. “Everyone saw he was fantastic from the very first day,” says Ronaldinho, who provided the assist for the Argentine’s very first Barcelona goal, against Albacete.
“I wanted to do with him what others had done with me: I wanted to help him in that first-team moment, because the talent was already obvious. When I started at Gremio I had experienced players helping me – my friends Beto and Guilherme. At Barça it was Carles Puyol, my big brother, my eternal captain who is always with me at charity events. I wanted to give back.”